26 May 2020

Closing the “Open Skies”

Ştefan Oprea

The “Open Skies” Treaty, after the Nuclear Deal with Iran, from 2018, and the INF Treaty, in 2019, is the third security agreement the US withdraws from lately. In a new era of big powers strategic competition, when the new weapons systems threaten to destroy the current strategic conventions, the US withdrawal from these two treaties will have huge consequences over the global architecture on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmation. Also, it creates major concerns on the future discussion for the new START Treaty (which is to expire in February 2020) on the limits of US and Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons.

Image source: SMFA

The “Open Skies” Treaty promoted openness and transparency on the military forces and their activities

The post-World War II period, dominated by the ideological conflict and the lack of trust between US and the Soviet Union, has turned the security cooperation into one of the biggest concerns of the American treaties.

That period of political and ideological confrontations and tensions, which could have also raised military threats and the beginning of a new arms race, provided, constantly, new reasons for the rivalry between these two states. The Cold War was in full swing. The increase of trust, control and, then, disarmation were the necessary elements for the stabilization of the international environment and the decrease of military violence. A process as promising as difficult.

Therefore, “Cold War’s leaders” gather within the Geneva Summit, in July 1955. The US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower and the British prime-minister, Anthony Eden, the French prime-minister, Edgar Faure and the Soviet prime-minister Nikolai Bulganin of the Soviet Union (representative of Nikita Hruscov) discussed about security issues, arms control, the German unification and the improvement of the East-West relations.

As the German unification and the arms control are not on the same page, president Eisenhower presented a plan by which is asking the US and the Soviet Union to exchange documents to better indicate the location of the military installations of both nations. Then known as the “Open Skies” Treaty, the plan was foreseeing that departing from their maps’ data each nation to be allowed to monitor, through air, the installations of the others, to make sure the other nations are following the arms control agreements. Meanwhile the French and the Brits were interested in the idea, the Soviets rejected any chance for a Western power to monitor their nation. For the Soviets, the idea of American aircrafts monitoring their military bases was inconceivable. Furthermore, president Hruscov stated that Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” Treaty was nothing but an “espionage plot”.

Coincidence or not, a few months later, the Eisenhower administration approved the use of U-2 to spy on the Soviet Union.

The 1955 proposal was rejected, but implemented, a few years later, under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), at that time the Security and Cooperation Conference in Europe.

The treaty was signed, eventually, as an initiative of President George W. Bush, in 1989. Negotiated by the members of NATO at that time and also of the former Warsaw Pact, the agreement was signed in Helsinki, Finland, on March 24th 1992.

Ten years later (January 2002), after a long period of negotiations, it entered into force, with 34 members and a territorial coverage from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

Bear in mind that Romania’s Government ends a bilateral agreement with the Republic of Hungary’s Government on the foundation of an open sky regime, involving surveillance activities, agreed between the two countries to estimate the power and dislocation of their military forces. The agreement entered into force on February 27th 1992 and was the first “Open Skies” convention and also predecessor if the current treaty. Also, Romania is among the few countries part of treaty that also has a certified platform (the Antonov An-30 aircraft, belonging to the Romania Air Force), the military men execute both individual and collective surveillance missions with.

The Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC) is the body which implements the treaty and it is composed of representatives of the 34 member states. OSCC meets for counselling and decisions at the OSCE headquarters in Wien, Austria, and it is chaired, by rotation, by each state (Romania executed its mandate in 2016). The treaty established air surveillance regime with unarmed aircrafts on board, on the entire territory of the 34 states and it is conceived to increase mutual trust and understanding, offering to all participants, regardless of their size, the possibility to get information about the military activities or other type of activities they are concerned about.

Considered a remarkable achievement, the treaty has helped build confidence in the OSCE area, providing a solid basis for participating states in their efforts to address and solve common security challenges.

Between 2002 and 2019, there were approximately 1,500 surveillance flights. Russia made its first surveillance flight under the Treaty in August 2002, while the United States made its first official flight in December of that year.

An analysis of the activities and observation surveillance carried out under the Open Skies Treaty highlights that it is proving to be, for the USA and the other signatory states, the best tool available for the use of collected images instead of "discrete" satellite sources. With more than 10 missions to observe and collect images of Russian military forces and movements on Ukrainian and Russian territory, before the conflict in Ukraine, the United States and its allies emphasized the importance of the treaty. Also, a joint "Open Sky" mission between the US and Ukraine, executed on December 6, 2018, offered all signatory states the opportunity to evaluate photos of the area of ​​the Russian attack on Ukrainian ships in the Sea of ​​Azov (November 25, 2018).

Without questioning the importance of the treaty in creating transatlantic transparency, trust and stability in the area its covering, the need for European allies to have access to these imaging capabilities becomes legitimate and pressing in the context of "Russian tanks have only a border to cross and not an ocean”. From this perspective, European countries’ will to periodically fly east and take a look around, becomes fully justified, and the more than 500 flights performed by the US and its allies over Russia, with its permission, say it all.

Incidents fatally marking the treaty’s existence

Without ignoring the “Open Skies” Treaty’s advantages, the American frustrations came from these incidents, mostly dealing with Russian activities.

Therefore, Russia’s bad relations with Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the territorial disputes with them are pushing treaty’s provisions to not be implemented along the disputed borders. The unilateral imposition, by Russia, of the restrictions for surveillance flights over Kaliningrad, without following any of “Open Skies” Treaty provisions, made this attitude to be unacceptable.

Given that through actions Russia did not comply with its obligations, in 2016, the US restricted the Russian Federation’s flights, based on the same treaty, over the Pacific’s Fleet in Hawaii and around military installation from Fort Greely, Alaska.

We must also note that, in the same year, Turkey dodging the same treaty stopped a Russian flight to get too close to the border with Syria, proving that Russia is not the only country stopping flights close to sensitive borders.

Russia’s decision to continue to stop the surveillance flights during its military exercise “Centre-2019”, from September 2019, did not but worsen the concerns in the field.

Since 2014, step by step, the "Open Sky" Treaty falls into the category of "collateral damage" generated by the tense US-Russia relationship.

Even though the United States was involved in many attempts to improve it in 2016 and 2017, including through direct talks with Moscow, the uncertain future of the treaty was sealed by President Trump's announcement confirming the withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty.

It is true that Russia has not complied with the treaty and has repeatedly violated its terms, banning US flights over areas where Washington believes Moscow is deploying medium-range nuclear weapons that threaten Europe. But there is a chance, indeed, minimal, that in the next six months the two states will reconsider their positions. The goal of the treaty, to provide mutual transparency, is more important than ever, but President Trump's intention to renegotiate a new deal with Russia and his desire to engage China in this effort remains a beautiful dream.

International efforts to keep the arms control, disarmation and non-proliferation

Disillusioned, most treaty signatories regret the US government's announcement of its decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, although they share their concerns about Russia's implementation of the treaty provisions. However, they stay committed to make this treaty work by reiterating, in discussions with the Russian Federation, the raise of these restrictions and continue the dialogue with all parties.

A meeting at the North Atlantic Council took place on May 22 2020 and had focused on discussing the Open Sky Treaty. During the debates, the commitment to maintain effective international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation was reiterated. It was also pointed out that Russia's selective, continuous implementation of its obligations under the Open Skies Treaty has undermined the contribution of this important treaty to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region.

“Allies also remain open to dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council on risk reduction and transparency. We continue to aspire to a constructive relationship with Russia, when Russia’s actions make that possible”, stated the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, in his Statement on the “Open Skies” Treaty.

A similar statement was also released by the High Representative of EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – vice-president of the European Commission, Josep Borrell Fontelles.

Translated by Andreea Soare